What is ableist language and what’s the impact of using it?

Ableist language is language that is offensive to people with disability. It can also refer to language that is derogatory, abusive or negative about disability. Ableism is the systemic exclusion and oppression of people with disability, often expressed and reinforced through language.

While some words are inoffensive in certain contexts (for example, it is appropriate to call some window coverings ‘blinds’, but the word ‘blind’ would become derogatory if you were saying ‘the Prime Minister was blindly following advice’), some words are offensive in any context and should always be avoided.

Many derogatory words for people with disability – like ‘retard’, ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’ – began as medical definitions used to categorise people with disability as lesser humans. These terms, once prominent in medical textbooks and used in scientific journals, were used a time of widespread eugenics of people with disability, such as forced sterilisation and institutionalisation. A term’s clinical origins do not mean it is OK to use. These terms are strong slurs against people with disability, are very offensive and should never be used.

A word’s meaning cannot be erased with good intentions.

People may not intend to be hurtful when they unknowingly use an ableist term, but it will hurt people anyway. Ableist language harms people with disability, and using these terms shows that people with disability aren’t valued. Every effort should be taken to avoid the use of ableist language and if it is used in error, it should be corrected and an apology made.

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